Engineering on film: Apollo 13

by Simon Handley, Associate Dean, CEBE.

On 20 July 1969 at 8:18 PM, the world changed.  We – all mankind, had landed on the moon in our incredibly small spacecraft. I was nine years old and had been allowed to stay up late to see this momentous occasion. Six hours later, with one small step for a man there was a giant leap for mankind as Neil Armstrong placed his foot on another rock in space.

First step on the moon
First step on the moon

It all seems like ancient history now; but the race to space led to some of the greatest science, technology and engineering advances of the last century. Space travel was mankind’s ultimate STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) project. It’s one of the things which inspired me to become an engineer.

Step forward to 1970 and the little matter of Apollo 13 – one of the most infamous of all space missions.

It all started very well when my parents had arranged with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for the launch date to coincide with my 10th birthday.  I’m still not sure how they did it!

This was to be the third spacecraft to go to the moon. Clearly the NASA team had it all sorted. The three astronauts would get into their spacecraft and be launched on a rather large explosive device into orbit around the Earth and then use the Earth’s gravity to launch them on to the moon. Once they approached the Moon, they would go into orbit and descend to the Moon’s surface in their tiny lunar module. They would wander around for a bit, set up a TV camera, take some pictures, gather  some rocks and return to Earth with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. Space travel had become almost routine.

So on 11 April, 1970 at 13:13 hours Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Hayes were launched into Earth’s orbit.


The 1995 film about the mission starring Tom Hanks gives a great insight into how the team of NASA engineers got the astronauts home safely.

As the film clearly illustrated, there were a few minor hiccups in the launch but the engineers compensated and all was apparently well. 55 hours after launch, an explosion led to the infamous message, “Houston, we have a problem”, which, as we now know, crippled the spacecraft and endangered the lives of the three intrepid astronauts. The resulting challenge of how to get the three men home captured the attention of all mankind.

Houston we have a problem

The film demonstrates the challenge that was faced by the crew and the mission control engineers, scientists and mathematicians to redefine the mission and get the crew back safely. There are many examples of great problem solving activities in the film, such as powering up the computers with a restricted power supply and building an adapter for the CO2 scrubbers out of bits of flight manuals, socks and the odd bit of space suit. This shows engineers’ ability to solve problems using the tools and equipment at hand.

Apollo 13 engineers

Finally, we should, for context purposes, realise the scale of the exercise and the computing technology that was available to NASA at the time; all this was achieved with a machine that by today’s standards is puny.

You carry more technology in your pocket than was used in the space missions. Consider your smartphone: an iPhone has 130,000 times more transistors than Apollo 13; the iPhone clock frequency is 32,600 times faster; it gives instructions 80,800,000 times faster per second; in overall performance, the iPhone is 120,000,000 times faster than Apollo 13’s guidance computer.

I recommend that you go and watch the film and admire the ingenuity and teamwork of all involved in the safe return of the astronauts.

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